This talented author/illustrator team believe that even young children, those of primary school age, should be helped to understand the sacrifices made by soldiers serving in the First World War. To this end they have created a picturebook which tells an involving story about two boys who join the army when they become young men. But, importantly, young readers first meet Ben and Ray when they are small children enjoying adventures and games in the countryside. In one game the boys build pretend trenches near a barbed wire fence – a hint of horrors to come perhaps. The story is involving and personal from the beginning. The friends’ later experiences on the battlefield seem all the more dreadful when contrasted with the exuberance of a carefree childhood. The decision to write in verse is a good one: the story builds line by repeated line with rhythm and power. Teachers may well choose to read aloud one of the best known poems of the 1914-18 war, John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’, before or after sharing this story.
The illustrations capture first the blissfulness and innocence of early experiences in the pre-war countryside, second the horrors of the battlefield and finally the resigned contentment of the two friends, each with injuries from their war service and back in their countryside home. One picture stands out, and points to the power of friendship: Ray is shown risking his own life to carry Ben to safety rather than leave him ‘to die in the cold and dirt, Out on the battlefield barren and stark…’ I found that each time I revisited the illustrations I noticed new layers of interesting detail. In the pictured cellar space where the soldiers have a refuge and a small hospital area, there are contemporary objects, maps and drawings about the war and some scribbled signatures of war poets like Siegfried Sassoon on the walls. All this will inspire discussion taking young readers beyond a superficial understanding and involvement.
The book is timely as it marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War and it shows through the story, the illustrations and the symbol of the poppy adorning many of the pages why the bravery of young soldiers deserves to be remembered.